Features

What did you do in the war? Part 4

Peter Batten concludes his memories of a terrifying time…

In September 1944 I started my years at St Olave’s. At that time the school was divided. Two thirds of the boys were evacuated to Torquay, but in 1943 part of the school premises was re-opened for those boys whose parents wanted them to remain in London. The rest of the premises were used as a temporary fire station! You may be interested to know that I am still in touch with 2 of the boys who joined the school on the same day that I did; they live nearby in Haywards Heath.   Immediately, the V1s were a problem. They could arrive at any time of the day or night. My school did not have a shelter, so if a V1 came over we had to leave the building as quickly as possible, cross the busy Tooley Street, and take shelter in the basement of a building opposite. Fortunately this did not happen too often and I cannot remember a V1 landing near us.

Much more frightening were the V2 rockets. The first rocket strike in London was on 8 September 1944. Travelling at 3 times the speed of sound and dropping from outside the Earth’s atmosphere, these weapons struck without warning. My closest experience of a V2 strike was early in 1945. I was marching in a church parade one Sunday morning with my local Scout troop, when a rocket struck less than a quarter of a mile away. We were not injured but we did feel the blast. Strangely, about a month later, I had arrived early at school and was kicking a ball about with some friends, when I heard an explosion about a mile away and probably near my home. At lunch time my form master gave me permission to go home to check whether my mother was safe. I arrived home to find that a V2 had struck in almost the same spot as our church parade blast, on the side of the arches of the railway coming out from London Bridge Station. One or two of our windows were broken, but my mother was unharmed. When all the debris from these two strikes was cleared the workmen discovered the body of an American soldier who had been walking under the arches when the rocket arrived. The biggest loss of life from a V2 strike was at a Woolworth’s store in New Cross in November 1944.

Make no mistake, both V1s and V2s were terrifying, but I think the V2s had the most disturbing effect. People in London were tired after more than four years of raids upon raids. Many had been working extremely hard. My father, for example, did hard manual work at the docks, repairing ships and fitting them with anti-aircraft guns. He often worked a 6 day week and sometimes even Sunday mornings. The V2s began to stretch nerves to the limit. Looking back I feel that we were lucky that Hitler was not able to use them earlier.

One of my memories will show you how people were affected. One Sunday in the Autumn of 1944 I learned that a V2 had struck about half a mile away on the previous evening, killing a large number of people. Following the rather ghoulish tendency of those days, I set off to have a look. I had not got very far when I heard the familiar sound of a V1 approaching. Then, belatedly, the sirens sounded. This was not unusual because the V1s flew quite low. I hurried back to my home and found a lady standing at the bus stop just outside. She was absolutely terrified. I tried to persuade her to come in and go to our shelter, but she was frozen to the spot. Fortunately my father soon appeared and together we got her into the house. By now the V1 was right overhead, but that did not worry us because several months’ experience had taught us that, even if its engine stopped above us, it would glide on and come down at least a mile away.

That poor woman was not unusual. One of the lessons of the war was that death could strike anywhere at any time. On the first night of the Blitz, a bomb struck a nearby school and killed about a hundred people. They had been evacuated there from the Dockland area which had been set on fire by the first raid which I described earlier. Some weeks later a bomb killed a similar number of people under the railway arch at Stainer Street, beneath London Bridge Station. The Council had believed that a bomb could not get through the arch, but one did. It exploded among the people who were sheltering there. That American soldier I mentioned above was walking along the street, probably on his way to meet a girlfriend in the beautiful Southwark Park.

It was a nightmare. As I look back on those years I find it hard to believe what happened. How did normal human beings commit themselves to such total war? During those years the German Air force tried to kill me. I forgave them long ago, yet they did allow themselves to be swept along by the madness of Hitler. But we were all mad, the world was mad. For Londoners, death was always just around the corner. I was one of the lucky ones.

[If you have memories of your childhood please send them to The Whistler – Ed]

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